Essentially what this all means is that for any non-professional (or for me, at least) it is simply impossible to get great prints without investing a lot more money and a lot more time. Both of which I am able to invest only to a certain extent. It just looks like I have to reduce my expectations, and that frustrates me.
Believe me, I feel your pain. Been feeling it for years....
I think my best advice for somebody willing to settle for less than perfection but looking for something better than hit-and-miss, my advice would boil down to this:
At the very least, you must
calibrate and profile your display. There are lots of options out there, most not bad. When in doubt, get something made by X-Rite. If you're on a budget, get the ColorMunki Smile for $100. And part of the process will involve properly setting your display's brightness -- the devices will measure the brightness and either interactively tell you how to adjust the display's brightness (and other controls) or they'll automatically do it all for you.
If you want the cheapest up-front costs, stick with the printer manufacturer's own ink and paper and use their ICC profiles. You'll pay more in the long run for supplies, but if everything is coming from one of the major manufacturers, especially Canon, Epson, and HP, the results are generally quite good.
If you don't mind a bit larger capital investment in exchange for a great deal of flexibility as well as cheaper operating costs, get a ColorMunki Photo for $450. It'll do a better job of profiling your display than the Smile, plus you can then profile any combination of printer, ink, and paper. The software that comes with it is quite capable, though there are certainly better options out there. But it's all very simple and easy and you'll be up and running in no time -- all for the low, low price of $450, so call right now! Operators are standing by!
You'll also either want to invest in a decent book on color management or be prepared to do lots of research and experimentation on your own. I went the latter route so I can't recommend any books, but I'd suggest going to the library and / or a local bookstore with a good selection of computer-related books and just start browsing until you find something that speaks to you.
Start with that. It may well be all you need. Indeed, lots of people are more than satisfied with the results they get from these products.
If you find yourself wanting even more, the good news is that the ColorMunki Photo is a very capable instrument for a very reasonable price; it's just the software that's crippled (though in a good way that makes it very easy and painless to use). You can use the instrument with basically any profiling suite, so the investment is a good one that'll last you a long time.
The next step up from the ColorMunki is the i1 Pro. It comes in various packages, but the only difference is the bundled software. If you go that route, I'd suggest the cheapest one you can get (it'll probably be just under a kilobuck) and use ArgyllCMS. The X-Rite software is capable and easy to use, but you have to spend lots of money to get to their good stuff.
For photography and graphic arts in general, there's no need to spend any more than that. The next step up first gets you to high-volume devices designed to do nothing but automated reading of charts all day long. Then you're getting into the prepress devices that, frankly, though they've got much better specifications don't actually deliver any meaningfully better real-world performance. And then you get into scientific research gear that'll cost more than your house.
Hope this helps....